Will This Film Worsen the Pandemic Panic?

Chin Han (left) and Marion Cotillard in Contagion 

Hey Carl,

I had resolved to despise Steven Soderbergh’s new movie Contagion after hearing the Council on Foreign Relations’ Laurie Garrett, whom I consider the chief propagandist of the bio-terror Chicken Littles, touting her intervention with the filmmakers to assure it was realistic. Garrett is no dummy, but she has consistently exaggerated the intelligent menace of microbes, starting with her 1994 book The Coming Plague.

The Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, also a Soderbergh consultant, told Salon  that while the film realistically depicts a pandemic, “we’re not trying to scare people.” Well, that may be true of Ian Lipkin, but let’s face it—fear is sometimes the only way to get people to pay attention. Fear makes fortunes and it can make the trains run on time.

I feel very ambivalent about this approach to public health, and therefore, about this film.

After all, it’s not like we have nothing to show for the bioterrorism and pandemic panic that Garrett has helped to whip up. Last week my local Safeway was offering flu vaccination without appointment. The availability of seasonal flu vaccine in late August is a direct result of the billions of dollars in government spending that arrived in response to hundreds of hearings and briefings and commissions. It all comes down to politics: Infectious diseases, spread intentionally or not, are fearsome, they target congressmen as well as voters of the opposite party, and being “soft” on natural disasters can cost you just as much as being weak on defense.

And now we have something else—Contagion, a product quite sensible within the conventions of showbiz. [Spoilers here, and sprinkled throughout the dialogue.] In the film, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the index case for a pandemic that, through air travel and infidelity, spreads quickly around the world. The CDC and World Health Organization, which are treated respectfully, though with realistic warts, get right on the case, but panic sets in, people loot and murder, nurses go on strike and millions die. Then, through the slightly unrealistic-but-hey-this-is-Hollywood sacrifice of CDC lab maven Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the world is saved.

The scientists and doctors are all doing their imperfect best, and no one could accuse Steven Soderbergh of not knowing how to pace an action film. For vaccine nerds like me, the best part is watching the comeuppance of Alan Krumwiede, an alternative-remedy-peddling blogger played with profoundly bad dentistry by Jude Law. Krumwiede may be the first villainous anti-vaccinist in fiction since Rider Haggard’s 1898 novel Dr. Therne. Yes!

(There’s a bit of juicy back story here: In 2006, Participant Productions, one of the producers of Contagion, optioned—but never produced—journalist David Kirby’s Evidence of Harm, a book that purported to reveal the “cover-up” of the vaccine link to autism. Krumwiede mouths, in exaggerated form, some of that book’s theses.)

I had a few nerdy niggles with the film. Within a day of being infected, Paltrow is already coughing and feverish, and three days later she’s dead. Yet the pandemic virus is identified as a paramyxovirus, agents that typically have longish incubation periods; e.g., 10 to 12 days for measles; 16 to 18 days for mumps, three to five days for respiratory syncytial virus. Quibble, quibble.

Furthermore, I found it hard to believe that Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) has to define the word fomite for senior staffers at the Minnesota Department of Health. The MDH is a crack unit—half the time they’re ahead of the CDC on new investigations.

It’s interesting how many “pandemic” movies are also zombie films. The depiction of things like fever and thrombocytic cytopenic purpura are not nearly as cinematically interesting as a virus that turns you into a greasepaint-caked harridan with a mindless craving for human flesh. Contagion sensibly chose the middle ground. Rows of silent sick people in cots are not very interesting, but this virus infects the brain, causing seizures, fainting, foaming at the mouth and stumbling into moving traffic.

The most visceral moment comes when the coroners carve up Paltrow’s head. For some reason, this episode got a big laugh at the screening I attended, perhaps because she continues to look so beautiful and placid and Gwyneth-y while they’re sawing up her skull and splattering themselves with her blood. Her face reminds us not to get too frightened—it’s only a movie.

Yet the world is paying attention to the threat of germs, partly because the Laurie Garretts of the world keep warning that the plague is coming with that oft-repeated phrase, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Contagion offers one story of how this “when” scenario might play out. But what do we really know about our odds? How many resources should we pour into defending ourselves against every conceivable bioweapon? Do we allow ourselves to be dragged into more wars on the pretext of “weapons of mass destruction” like the smallpox stores that Iraq never had but Vice President Cheney warned about?

For the Garretts of the world, the world will never be paying enough attention. It will always be impossible to prove her wrong, because it’s impossible to assess with certainty the risk of a bioterror attack or a pandemic more horrible than the H1N1 episode. (“H1-N-nothing,” a journalist says in the film.)

Carl, how do you deal with this maddening Catch-22? Does a film like Contagion serve to worsen the pandemic panic? If it does, is that a good thing?

Fretfully yours,